STEM Teacher Success Story #1: Amherst Middle School

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Look at those smiles!

When we first met Library Media Teacher, Drew Schmidle, at Amherst Middle School, he came to us with a unique problem. Not only was he using various hands-on projects in the classroom, but he was also using quite a bit of them and was unsure whether he was providing a guided path for his students to learn engineering and computer science effectively.

At the time, he was using products like Lego, Sphero, and Ozobots to help his students gain exposure in STEM and get a solid introduction to electronics and coding. These are wonderful products but…something was missing.

Naturally, my cofounder and I asked him a couple of questions to see what the issue might be and see whether there was a way we could help.

“Well Drew – what is your overall goal with your students?” I asked.

He took a minute to really think about this and responded:

“I think I’ve done a nice job introducing my students to the world of robots and programming but I’m not certain that they really understand the fundamentals. I know they can plug components into a device and then open up a coding interface to play around with code. But I don’t think they understand what they’re doing. To me, that’s not teaching.”

David and I looked at each other with reassurance. This is what we’d be hearing during our customer discovery and validation phases back when we launched our Kickstarter campaign in 2015. We jumped in and asked him another question:

“Drew, thanks for sharing. We’ve been hearing this problem from teachers for a while now. One quick question for you….what do you think is missing from current projects you’re using in the classroom today?”

He paused and looked away to think about his answer and replied:

“I know I’ve exposed my students to the right stuff but I don’t think I’ve done a good job of providing the right progression for them because I don’t have the modern curriculum, training, or tools. Sure…..moving a robot here and there is great – but I believe learning how to build a robot and coding it to do something fun or useful is only the beginning. There are a few things I’m looking for:”

“1) State-of-the-art components: I want my students to use real parts and tools that everyday engineers use – like various sensors, actuators, indicators, or printed circuit boards (PCBs). I don’t want to baby my middle school kids with watered-down electronics; I want them exposed to hands-on projects that will continue to inspire them and help them pursue an education or career path in engineering, electronics, or computer science. If that means high school and college-level material come into play sooner, then even better!”

What kind of components are you using in your classroom?

“2) Progressive coding: programming has to be treated delicately. You don’t throw a student into Scratch or other block-based software. Even before block-based coding, you need to explain that programming should be treated as an entirely different language with its own rules of “grammar” and “punctuation”. With all of my students, I make sure they look at a coding snippet first. I want them to dissect it in every way possible before even trying to understand it.
So I’m looking for something that will teach the basics such as scratch and C++ but then I’d like to teach them much more than that. If there’s an evolution towards CSS, Python, and embedded programming with Arduino – then that is exactly what I want providing that the guided steps and support are there.”

How are you introducing code?

“3) Flexibility in classroom instruction: spend a day in my classroom and you’ll quickly learn that no class or student is the same. There are patterns here and there but I’ve learned that I need to offer various types of experiences for my students to learn effectively.
For example, I teach my first period class in a lab setting. Students come in, work on hands-on projects at their own pace, and when they’re finished, they move onto the next task or project without my permission. They ask questions, they collaborate, and I float around the room to see who needs my help.”

STEM lab setting where students work at their own pace.

“In my second period class, students work on the same projects but do not advance ahead without my permission. It is a bit more of a controlled environment but it works for them and we’ve been very successful.”

“In short, I need a type of product that can handle diverse learning experiences. If it doesn’t, it makes it very difficult to manage the various projects and activities throughout the semester. It’s not unusual for me to use about 7-10 different products throughout the day to drive various lessons. When you only have 40 minutes in a period and need something easy to set up, clean up and teach something relevant, it can be a little chaotic; I know it’s not helping me set my students up for maximum success.”

Drew took a deep breath after his answer and asked us:

“So can you help me and my students?”

I was already smiling. Not only because we’d have an opportunity to help Drew and his students but because this is what we had set out to do and we were prepared to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

“Of course we can Drew. Here are a couple of ideas for getting started.”

To be continued….Tune in next week in our next blog post to check out how we help Drew get started.

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